sports (2006-03)

Bright Orange Future

UT Men’s Basketball program back on track, finally

Bright Orange Future

by Tony Basilio

Five Coaches and 17 years later Tennessee finally has the basketball program they were hoping for. Doug Dickey fired Don DeVoe after the ’89 season, coming off an NCAA Tourney appearance, triggering a hellhole spiral for men’s hoops. That is, until Hambone showed some backbone.

Tennessee is shining under Pearl. In the background lurks the jeweler. He doesn’t get much credit for the resurgence. He doesn’t ask for any.

Tennessee’s attendance in its SEC opener with Georgia was a crowd of 22,228—the largest crowd to witness a Tennessee SEC home opener since the aforementioned DeVoe years. It’s taken Bruce Pearl two months to overcome the malaise of 16 seasons. In about eight weeks, Pearl has turned Knoxville on its ear and made UT basketball the place to be. Over 22,000 show up for Georgia? Not Clint, Hank, tractor pulls, or WIVK appreciation night, but Georgia?

Numbers don’t lie. Pearl put seven times as many people in the stands in the league opener than would’ve been there under Bad Buzz Peterson. UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton’s not surprised by the surging interest in the basketball Vols. “I go back to last summer. You could see it on the Caravan and hear it on the talk shows. In my 14 years at Tennessee I don’t ever remember a time when basketball and football were getting equal play from our fans in the summer preceding a football season,” Hamilton says.

The proper course that the Vols are charting goes back to Tennessee’s gemologist known to his schoolboy friends as “Hambone.” Hamilton made the controversial decision to pull the trigger on Bad Buzz last spring against a wave of dissent on the Hill. Hamilton stood tall against a vast orchestrated conspiracy designed to keep UT basketball in the toilet and Bad Buzz as coach.

Last March it seemed as if Peterson was college basketball’s version of “Tookie” Williams. The entire free world was pleading with Hamilton to give Buzz clemency. UT’s Patron Saint of Football, “St. Super” Peyton Manning, called on his behalf. Pat Summitt and Phillip Fulmer even turned out for games and sat behind the UT bench in a show of solidarity. Private calls would’ve been one thing, but when word got out publicly of the “groundswell” for Peterson, the pressure was augmented beyond the pale. 

In fact, Hamilton’s decision to terminate Peterson’s Big Orange life caused a personal rift between himself and Dickey. The master Dickey apparently took it personally when Hamilton decided to give Peterson his complimentary case of popcorn last spring. One thing’s for sure, Hamilton is not the “Orange Puppet” that many thought he would be when he first took over the post in the summer of ’03. Not that the talk of his alleged weakness is a sore spot with Hamilton. “At the University of Tennessee, the president is always going to be involved in those decisions. The thing Dr. Peterson has been so good about is saying, ‘Mike, this (the hiring and firing of coaches) is your decision,’” Hamilton says. “He was there with me saying, ‘You’re the one with intimate knowledge of this. I’m going to trust you with the decision, but I will hold you accountable.’”

In retrospect, Hamilton was spot-on perfect in his decision to do an about face on Dickey’s wishes. Perhaps his eschewing of Dickey’s request for Buzz clemency was instinctive. After all, when is the last time Dickey got anything right relating to basketball? Pearl’s emergence has only served to further cement the buffoonery that was the Dickey tenure with regard to UT hoops.

Despite the wonderful start to the ’05-06 season, Tennessee basketball’s on-the-floor product is far from arriving. Pearl’s inaugural edition has simply re-energized and reinvigorated a moribund program. Every player has improved while the energy on the court is of Mears-era quality. Still, this team could crash and burn. It simply doesn’t matter. This is merely Pearl’s first at bat in a UT uniform. He’s already hit a home run with the fans. A fan base and a group of players that once expected to lose now carry themselves like winners. Remarkably, this transformation has happened overnight!

Hamilton’s intestinal fortitude in the face of mounting opposition toward a change cannot be overstated. In retrospect, waiting another year would’ve meant that the jeweler would’ve missed his cornerstone upon which UT will build its program for decades to come. Pearl would not have been there. In the meantime, the dollars are flowing at UT for hoops. Hamilton summed it up by saying, “Sixteen thousand for Alabama A&M, with a 2,000 walk up crowd the night of the game? That’s huge! Our marketing focus has been two-fold this year. We wanted to get the students back and get people out once. Just one shot with this product is all it takes!” With one shot across the establishment firestorm, Hamilton has a five-star basketball coach with a five-carat diamond future.

Listen up! Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.